The Power of Human Touch

One of the hardest things new mom Lynn Brenner had to learn was how to leave her baby’s side. But thanks to a new program at NorthBay Medical Center, loving arms were ready to hold baby Wyatt any time of the day or night.

ABOVE: Baby Wyatt Brenner gets some loving cuddles from NorthBay Guild volunteers Diane Harris (left) and Gayle Ratliff.

Wyatt was born six weeks premature at NorthBay Medical Center, and had to spend several weeks in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

“I have another son, who is 4, I’m a full-time student and I realized I have to sleep and eat,” the 23-year-old Fairfield resident said. “I couldn’t possibly be with him every second. It took me awhile to accept it, though.”

She came to trust the team of nurses who were always quick to scoop him up when it was time to be fed, or to soothe him when he needed consoling.

“Oh, this little one really likes to be held and has a distinctive cry when he wants to be cuddled,” noted Anna Tiss, Clinical Nurse IV in the NICU. But nurses can get busy, especially when the NICU is full.

Peeking in on Tiniest Patients

NorthBay Medical Center’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit has room for 16 special cribs — Isolettes — and a dozen of those are equipped with NICView cameras, which means if a premature baby has to stay with us a little longer than mom does, there’s an easy way for family around the world to keep a close eye on the infant 24/7/365, via a closed, secure system that transmits images to phones, laptops, computers and tablets.

That’s why there’s a team of specially trained NorthBay Guild volunteers who serve as “certified cuddlers,” spending an hour or two — as their schedules permit —  rocking, holding, hugging, humming to and cradling any newborn whose parents may not be available and who have given permission.

“Cuddlers also free up our nurses to perform their many other responsibilities while still providing the babies with that all-important human and healing touch,” said Heather Troutt, clinical manager, Women and Children’s Services for NorthBay Healthcare.

There have been more than 600 research papers written on the myriad benefits of the human touch for pre-term babies, she added.

“Holding the babies provides them with pain relief, stabilizes heart rates and temperatures, helps them to sleep better and cry less, and to gain weight and grow,” Heather said. “All of that means they may spend less time in the NICU and can be on their way home sooner.”

“The babies are so sweet, just so sweet,” said Gayle Ratliff, a NorthBay Guild volunteer who was one of the first to sign up for the training. The 83-year-old mother of three, grandmother of five and great-grandmother of three regularly spends part of her Saturday morning in the NICU.

“I rock slowly, talk softly to them and smooth their hair, just like I did to my own children,” she said. “I love kids, and babies are so special. I get a lot out of it, and I feel like I’m helping the babies.”

“Holding the babies provides them with pain relief, stabilizes heart rates and temperatures, helps them to sleep better and cry less, and to gain weight and grow.”
—Heather Troutt

NICU nursing staff appreciates the extra set of arms, as well.

“You’re being here, even just for an hour, meant that I could get most of my charting done,” said Monica Hernandez, NICU nurse, as she scooped an infant from a cuddling volunteer’s arms.
And, having the extra help on hand is especially beneficial for the occasional infant born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, Heather noted. These babies have been exposed to opiates, stimulants, sedatives or antidepressants during pregnancy and after birth their dependence on the substance continues for several more weeks.

“The baby’s central nervous system becomes overstimulated, causing symptoms of withdrawal, such as a high-pitched cry, tremors and an increased respiratory rate. Gentle cuddling has been proven to help these infants remain more calm as they work through their withdrawal.”

“I used to think the NICU was a scary place,” Lynn added, “but the nurses know what they are doing and it’s a relief to know that someone will hold him when I’m not here.”

Certified Cuddlers

NorthBay Guild officially launched its volunteer cuddler program in November, under the guidance of two recently retired NorthBay Healthcare employees: Diane Harris, who had served for many years as director of Women’s Health, and Arletta Stonebraker, who had worked at NorthBay for 34 years, most recently as executive assistant to Aimee Brewer, NorthBay Healthcare Group president.

Volunteers in the program undergo training that focuses on the benefits of human touch, learn the importance of hand hygiene, schedule their volunteer hours on a Google calendar, and sign a confidentiality agreement. They also promise to refrain from judgment and refer any questions the parents may have to their infant’s nurse.

When volunteers arrive for their shift, they thoroughly wash their hands, put on a hospital gown and make themselves comfortable in a rocking chair. Nurses are responsible for removing the baby from his or her Isolette and returning the child to the Isolette when the volunteer’s shift is over.

Anyone interested in becoming a NorthBay Guild volunteer — either for the cuddler program or any other opportunities — should log onto www.northbay.org. Click on the “Giving Back” link and navigate to the NorthBay Guild & Volunteers section, where applications are available.

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